What does Asagaya mean?

Asagaya (“valley of the obscure assistant,” but more at “the shallow valley”)

Asagaya's famous shopping street.
Asagaya’s famous shopping street.

OK, so I’m back from my New Year’s vacation and I hope everyone is doing just fine. If you read JapanThis! over the holiday, you probably know I took a survey to get some opinions about the blog. One of my major issues of concern was the length of the articles. The results of the survey were totally ambiguous. It was an exact 3 way split between “too long” and “just fine” and “no response.” I’m taking that as permission to carry on as is, but I’ll just be a little more mindful of the length of articles. But not much. Some useful feedback was a few article suggestions. And I think I’d like start with a few reader suggestions[i].

A quick note about reader suggestions.  Quite a few suggestions were about topics that I’ve already covered. JapanThis! is actually a very searchable site, but you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the search field[ii]. I’m going to look into making the search field more visible, but in the meantime, you can find it on the bottom right hand side of the page, right above the list of most recent articles. And in a worst case scenario, Google’s got your back, often times “Japan This (insert place name)” will bring up my blog.

The search feature is pretty good in Word Press. You should use it!
The search feature is pretty good in Word Press. You should use it!

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the first place name of the year.


Spoiler Alert!

This place name is 当て字 ateji, ie; kanji used for their phonetic value and not meaning[iii]. The first and second kanji are dead giveaways. and its friendly counterpart   are often just generic kanji for the /a/ sound. Sadly, is the equally generic and meaningless way to write the /sa/ sound. So the only kanji with any literal meaning is the last one, 谷 ya/tani which means “valley.” That said, the use of ateji betrays the antiquity of this place name. In the countryside, far from the ancient capitals of Kyōto or Kamakura, literacy was low and the easiest way to write place names with ateji. Be it a native Japanese place name or a pre-existing place name from a previous people, ateji was just the easiest way to write things.

Let’s Break Down the Kanji


nook, cranny


help, assistant


genitive particle in Old Japanese
(equivalent to modern の no)



This place name is officially written 阿佐谷 Asagaya but the train station name is written as 阿佐ヶ谷 Asagaya. The train station name is actually easier to read than the official name, so in many kanji conversion systems[iv] the latter comes up first and as such it seems to be the more prevalent way of writing this place name in casual situations. The latter was also the most traditional way of writing this place name until 1965 when 杉並区 Suginami-ku Suginami Ward standardized it as 阿佐谷 Asagaya. I’m assuming they just thought it looked more formal and literary[v].

Remains of the Momozono River.
Remains of the Momozono River.


If The Other Kanji Mean Nothing, Why “Valley?”

A river called the 桃園川 Momozono-gawa used to flow between present day 中野区 Nakano-ku Nakano Ward and 杉並区 Suginami-ku Suginami Ward. Today this river is underground[vi]. However, as is the nature of rivers, they usually exist in the lowlands and valleys. The Momozono River was no different. The area where the river used to be was a shallow valley and that’s exactly what this ateji name is believed to derive from.  In modern Japanese 浅  asa means “slight” or “shallow.”[vii] The idea being that the area along this river was an 浅の谷 asa no ya a shallow valley [viii]. Long time readers will recognize the / no/ga substitution from such familiar places names as 関ヶ原 Seki-ga-hara.  The ateji were added after the fact, and whoomp there it is.

But just to shed a little light on the antiquity of the name. The place name must already have been established by the 14th century because that’s when the name first shows up in the records. In the 1300’s, a noble family was granted control of the area and assumed the name of their fief, thus becoming the 阿佐ヶ谷氏 Asagaya-shi Asagaya Clan. Whether the ateji were decided at this time or earlier is anyone’s guess.

The Momozono River circa 1950.
The Momozono River circa 1950. Today it’s a sewer.

Asagaya – Literary Center

After the 関東大震災 the Great Kantō Earfquake of 1923, many artists fled[ix] from the crowded 下町 shitamachi low city to Asagaya because rent and land was cheap and there area was still connected to the center of town. The 山手 yamanote high city also lost its fair share of artists to the Asagaya area. Many were unrecognized writers in their own day – though most of them are widely respected today – they congregated in the area. From the post 1923 Earfquake Era to the Post WWII Era, Asagaya became a haven for broke ass artists[x].

A bunch of famous Japanese writers having a party in Asagaya... not writing.
A bunch of famous Japanese writers having a party in Asagaya… not writing.

Some big names from the day are such unmemorables as[xi]: 井伏鱒二 Ibuse Masuji, 与謝野鉄寛 Yosano Tekkan, 太宰治 Dazai Osamu, 青柳瑞穂 Aoyagi Mizuho, 三好達治 Miyoshi Tatsuji, 火野葦平 Hino Ashihei, and 徳川夢声 Tokugawa Musei. Asagaya was the scene in which these artists incubated.

Asagaya Tanabata Festival
Asagaya Tanabata Festival

Today, Asagaya is pretty much a down to earth part of Tōkyō Metropolis that makes its closest access to the city center via Shinjuku Station. Its most charming points are the amount of greenery it still affords residents and its annual 七夕祭り Tanabata Matsuri Tanabata Festival held in July. I’ve been to the Tanabata Festival twice and while it’s crowded as hell, it’s pretty damn fun if you go with your friends.

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[i] Feel free to participate in my survey here, can’t promise I’ll read it soon, but I’m keeping it open… forever. So, I can promise that I’ll check it sometime.
[ii] And while the web view site has a great search feature, the mobile version of the site has a horrible search feature.
[iii] Here’s wiki’s article about ateji.
[iv] This meaning when you use a computer, cellphone, or smartphone.
[v] And we’ll talk about “literary” in a little bit.
[vi] Some of the path of the river remains as a walkway and fans of the Nakano-based porn giant, Soft on Demand, may recognize the Momozono-gawa walkway from many a Japanese porn movie. #TeamIenari
[vii] It has many more meanings, see my article on Asakusa.
[viii] Don’t click that link. I’m serious. Don’t do it.
[ix] Or in most cases, were forced to re-located because their homes were destroyed and rebuilding costs were too high in the center of the city.
[x] Something I can relate to all too closely.
[xi] Just a quick warning, I don’t read fiction anymore. So maybe these writers are actually good. I honestly have no idea. I just hate reading fiction these days – I’d rather watch it.

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